Because of climate change and other fossil fuel issues, many farmers are looking to solar energy to power their farms. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes in their article “Up with the Sun: Solar Energy and Agriculture”1 that “solar energy can be used in agriculture in a number of ways, saving money, increasing self-reliance, and reducing pollution.” Francis Thicke, who operates an alternative-energy-powered organic farm in Iowa, lists some of the ways solar might be used on a farm:2
- Powering pumps to provide water for animals in grazing paddocks
- Solar for the farmhouse
- Heating hot water in the milk house
- Heat for greenhouses
- Solar-powered electric fence chargers
Next Step Energy, serving a 60-mile radius around Eau Claire, Wisconsin, since 1982, has done many solar installations for farms. Joe Maurer, project development for Next Step, says, “We’ve installed for all kinds of farmers, but our typical clients are small farmers looking to hedge against rising energy costs while taking advantage of tax credits, depreciation, and USDA REAP grants. Next Step Energy has the capability to do very large systems, but our typical install is around 8kW to 12kW.” Maurer explains that Next Step’s solar installations are not per individual applications but rather for total load management. “Ninety-five percent of systems are grid-tied electric systems, so functions on the farm are not broken down. What I mean is solar powers the total load, not separate individual applications. Most of the systems we install are grid tied. This has the advantage of allowing the farmer to sell excess power back and have the farmer’s account credited by the utility company. This is why grid-tied solar energy is generally more popular and practical than battery systems.”
Next Step’s website explains what they do: “We are a full service installer of renewable energy, high efficiency radiant heating systems. We specialize in consultation, creative design, and installation of solar electric, solar thermal, and unique heating systems.” The company does site assessments, system design and installation, consultation services, as well as providing service and repairs to systems installed.
What are some advantages to using solar on the farm? Maurer says, “Burning less fuel, having a stable energy bill, and promoting a positive environmental image. Plus it’s fun to manage your power. Solar has that effect on people. Once they realize they are making money by producing energy, they start shutting off lights and figuring out ways to reduce the electrical load. They can monitor their own solar production on their smart phone or computer. It’s fun!”
Installing solar is a long-term investment. “But,” Maurer notes, “the price of solar has never been lower. That’s a fact, not a sales pitch. Prices of solar have dropped 75 percent in the last five years. Prices are at an all-time low largely due to worldwide popularity and acceptance of solar as a viable way to produce clean power.”
What does Maurer like about working at Next Step? “I work in project development and also work as an independent film maker. The two jobs fit together nicely. I enjoy meeting new people and hearing their stories.”
1. Union of Concerned Scientists: www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/smart-energy-solutions/increase-renewables/up-with-the-sun-solar-energy.html.
2. Thicke, Francis: https://mosesorganic.org/farming/farming-topics/miscellaneous/farm-used-buckshot-to-meet-energy-needs/.